Last summer, the Seattle Police Department carried out a prostitution sting at a mock massage parlor in University District.
On the last day of the ten-day operation, the Seattle Times published a fast-paced, lurid story describing how officers conducted the operation at a fake brothel called Euro Spa. “Western European Masseuse,” read a banner at the entrance of the drabby building where the department’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit set up its sting. Undercover cops inside wore high heels and miniskirts, offering would-be johns handjobs ($100), blowjobs ($140) or intercourse ($200). More than 200 men handed money over to officers, securing their place in handcuffs rather than receiving happy endings.
One year later, cases from the Euro Spa sting of June 2016 are still slowly making their way through Seattle’s Municipal Court. Some men arrested that night have pled guilty to “sexual exploitation,” the city’s recently modified term for the misdemeanor of patronizing a prostitute. Others have requested trials. This is par-for-the-course in municipal court, where cases tend to reach boring resolutions without making headlines.
But one accused john—we’ll call him John—adopted a different legal strategy in his sexual exploitation case. John’s lawyer, Bob Goldsmith, filed a motion in July challenging City Attorney Pete Holmes’ little-publicized policy for prosecuting men charged with buying sex.
Goldsmith’s filing shows that Holmes directed prosecutors to rule out pre-trial diversion for those accused of soliciting prostitutes. Seattle attorneys are instead expected to push for guilty pleas that will result in a criminal record. That means city prosecutors no longer work out deals allowing suspected johns to avoid criminal convictions if they get social services. Such deals are common for people accused of drug charges and other misdemeanors, an approach that has made Seattle a national model for criminal justice reform.
The day this story was set for publication, Holmes wrote a letter to all seven municipal court judges explaining his rationale behind the policy, part of a model that he claims will reduce prostitution overall. The idea: cracking down on demand for prostitution by catching johns in stings and punishing them with "public disclosure of their activities."
Anita Khandelwal, policy director for the Department of Public Defense, called Holmes’ tactic on sexual exploitation charges “unusual and illegal.” While johns are often cast as sexual predators by law enforcement and the media, Khandelwal says the clients her office sees are “incredibly poor and marginalized and caught up in police stings.” She added, “Mr. Holmes’ statement that criminalizing buyers results in changed behavior is not supported by the evidence. The war on drugs did not reduce drug use but it filled prisons.”
In the “sanctuary city” of Seattle, public defenders additionally say the City Attorney’s approach could have disproportionate impacts for noncitizens accused of soliciting sex workers. Among those impacts, deportation.
John, represented by attorney Bob Goldsmith, argued that Holmes’ zero tolerance policy discriminates against men because “there is no doubt that it wants to punish men and not the women involved in prostitution.” Goldsmith wrote that John is “eminently qualified” for diversion, noting that he has no criminal record and had not been arrested prior to the Euro Spa sting.
Municipal Judge Karen Donahue did not address the defendant’s gender discrimination claims (which, let’s be real, are silly), but she did take issue with Holmes’ blanket order instructing his troops to stop offering diversion for sex buyers.
“This decision removes individualized consideration of each case, thus taking away prosecutorial discretion, which is not consistent with principles of due process,” Donahue wrote in an order compelling prosecutors to consider diversion in John’s case.
Holmes appealed Donahue’s order in King County Superior Court. He hired outside attorneys from one of Seattle’s top law firms, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, to defend his hardline stance against johns. The firm doesn’t come cheap.
According to spokesperson Kimberly Mills, the City Attorney’s office has budgeted $60,000 for Davis Wright Tremaine LLP to work on John’s case, spending $45,000 to date.
The firm’s contract has also become an issue in Holmes’ re-election campaign. Holmes’ opponent, Scott Lindsay, highlighted John’s case in a press release blasting the city attorney for spending on outside counsel when Seattle went $13.4 million over budget for legal expenses. The lead attorney on John’s case, Jeff Coopersmith, endorsed Holmes in the city attorney’s re-election campaign. Four lawyers from Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, including Coopersmith, have donated a total of $800 to Holmes’ campaign.
Explaining the decision to hire outside counsel on this case, Mills said in an email, “The reason we’re not litigating this case like an ordinary criminal case is because our appeal raises important issues involving separation of powers that potentially affect the scope of our office’s prosecution authority in every case, not just this case.”
The lawyer hired by the city argued that the Municipal Court overstepped its authority by reining in city prosecutors. He also rebutted Donahue’s ruling that Holmes’ policy “removes individualized consideration of each case.” Contrary to that claim, the city says nothing stops prosecutors from making exceptions for diversion in some accused johns’ cases.
In his letter to judges, Holmes explained, "This is not an absolute, unwavering rule: exceptions may be granted if circumstances or evidentiary considerations warrant them. But, in most circumstances, absent individualized circumstances beyond just a lack of prior offenses, my office will not offer a diversion to offenders charged with Sexual Exploitation.”
A conviction for sexual exploitation carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Most offenders, particularly first-timers, won’t face those punishments. They’re usually offered something called a “deferred sentence,” where, in exchange for a guilty plea, they’ll have the opportunity to scrub their record of a conviction after a certain period of time.
Still, those convictions can have repercussions on housing and employment during those months. Pre-trial diversion, on the other hand, would prevent a prostitution charge from ever appearing on someone’s record, thereby lessening extrajudicial impacts.
While Coopersmith, the attorney hired by the city, argued that the City Attorney’s office does consider individual circumstances, his filing did not name a case in which one of Holmes’ attorneys offered pre-trial diversion to a defendant.
Of the 201 Euro Spa cases reviewed by The Stranger, 57 men pleaded guilty or no contest. Practically everyone who did plead received deferred sentences ranging from six to twelve months. None of the convicted Euro Spa johns have received pre-trial diversion agreements. The rest of the cases are pending.
One man who was caught up in the same sting and spoke to The Stranger on the condition of anonymity said he only wanted a regular massage. But he ended up pleading guilty to sexual exploitation and paying nearly $3,000 in fees and fines. He said that the conviction came at a terrible time—with bills to pay and his family’s mouths to feed.
“I feel like they took advantage of me,” he said. “Even though I admitted yes, I feel like I did it by force, like I didn't have a choice. I didn't know, the lawyer put it in front of me, and I signed it.”
Defense lawyers watching John’s case say whatever the Superior Court decides could have bigger implications for noncitizens charged with sexual exploitation. Soliciting prostitution belongs in a category of crimes known as “moral turpitude” in which convictions can trigger deportation and loss of citizenship. And in immigration law, even a deferred sentence registers as permanent on a noncitizen's record.
“Every noncitizen who walks out of the municipal court with this type of agreement walks out of court with a big flag that says I’m deportable,” says Annie Benson, senior directing attorney for the Washington Defender Association.
Benson said that Holmes has generally been sensitive to immigration consequences in his office's prosecutions. For instance, Holmes asked the Municipal Court to take one day off year-long sentences that could otherwise lead to deportation.
But when his office prosecutes sexual exploitation, prosecutors don’t make any exceptions for noncitizens, attorneys who represent accused johns tell The Stranger.
City Attorney spokesperson Mills said in an email, “Our office takes potential immigration consequences of criminal cases very seriously and, where possible, does everything it can to treat citizens and noncitizens equally.” Mills noted Holmes' work to remove one day from 365-day sentences, as well as work lobbying the state legislature to prevent certain misdemeanors from being treated as deportable offenses.
Rich Stolz, executive director of immigrant rights organization OneAmerica, told The Stranger he was surprised that the City Attorney’s office wasn’t willing to take “a more measured approach” to prosecutions given the stakes for immigrants.
“I do think it's more often the case that these issues will arise in any application process and could mean that an individual who's otherwise able to naturalize will be faced with something on the record that would render them ineligible,” Stolz said. “And in cases where people are facing deportation proceedings, something like that could be used to make them a priority given how it's understood in immigration law.”
The potential impact on the city’s undocumented population is an ironic twist for an office that has taken on the highest-profile opponent there is when it comes to protecting undocumented immigrants: President Trump. In March, Holmes’ office sued the president of the United States, arguing that Seattle would not be “bullied” into abandoning its sanctuary city status. In the complaint against the Trump administration, the City Attorney’s office described the “essential contributions” immigrants made to Seattle’s economy, and reaffirmed city policy welcoming immigrants and refugees.
But at the same time that immigrant residents are facing new scrutiny from the federal government, the city has also ruled out alternatives for accused johns in stings that take immigration consequences into account, public defender Sadé Smith told The Stranger.
“People are getting wrapped up in the system who have no business being there, and the city is claiming to be a sanctuary city, but changing its policy to make sure there's no immigration-safe resolutions,” Smith said. “It's frustrating.”
Before Holmes took over the city attorney’s office, the majority of prostitution arrests targeted sex workers. Holmes altered that strategy, focusing city resources to prosecute johns instead. The strategy, known as the Nordic Model, seeks to prevent human trafficking by ending demand for prostitution.
But proponents of the Nordic model often conflate consensual sex work with trafficking. Some of the research that Holmes’ relies on for his position comes from people who believe that there is no such thing as consensual sex work.
Debra Boyer, the Executive Director of Organization for Prostitution Survivors, says Holmes’ policy is fair. “You don’t get to commit domestic violence. You don’t get to abuse your child. You don’t get to buy people,” she said, adding, “[Prostitution] is just something that is not consensual. It always starts with some form of coercion.”
Sex workers rights advocates acknowledge the harms of sex trafficking, but they say it is separate from the industry of consensual sex work targeted by Holmes' policies. As The Stranger has previously reported, other researchers who study the sex trade don't really know what percentage of sex work is done non-consensually.
"There's a fallacy if you believe that targeting clients is not going to affect the safety and rights of sex workers and other people in the sex trade," Emi Koyama of the Coalition for the Rights & Safety of People in the Sex Trade said. "When you target someone who's paying for sex, that's not just going to reduce income, but also bargaining power from people selling sex. People are going to work harder under less safe conditions and we're going to have to concede more to support families."
She continued, "There's actual violence and exploitation in the sex trade that we want to do something about, but treating all clients as someone guilty of sexual exploitation is not going to help."
Holmes' end demand strategy also seeped into semantics. Under the request of Holmes, the City Council changed the crime formerly known as “Patronizing a Prostitute” to “Sexual Exploitation.” Seattle’s Municipal Court launched a Sex Buyers Diversion Class (also known as john school) to educate buyers about human trafficking. The police department’s Vice Unit became the Vice and High Risk Victims Unit. In the City Attorney’s newsletter, at public forums, or in court, Holmes and his team have made the claim that 90 percent of sex workers are pimped. (The “90 percent” claim comes from statistics put together by the Seattle Police Department in 2012.)
But while Holmes says his “end demand” policies aim to help victims of trafficking, organizations like Amnesty International say that criminalizing sex buying only makes things more unsafe for people working in the sex trade, trafficked and non-trafficked alike. In May of 2016, Amnesty International published its policy on decriminalization, arguing that policies criminalizing sex buying “ often force sex workers to work in ways that compromise their safety.”
The report continued: “While these laws are often intended to shift police focus, and therefore blame, from the sex worker to the client, in practice they can lead to sex workers having to take risks to protect their clients from detection by law enforcement, such as visiting locations determined only by their clients.”
And in contrast to Holmes’ claims about the effectiveness of “end demand,” research done on the effectiveness of the Nordic model in Sweden showed that “end demand” policies have actually resulted in an increase in conflict and health risks among vulnerable sex workers.
Khandelwel, of the Department of Public Defense, says she also does not agree with the "end demand" strategy. “The approach fails to explore why marginalized and poor people might seek to buy sex and what might change that behavior.”
City attorney candidate and former mayoral advisor Scott Lindsay says he’s critical of the city’s hardline approach to sex buyers. He agrees that sex buying should be criminal, but says he would crack down on storefronts and massage businesses that sell sex.
“Holmes and I agree that the City should focus on buyers of sex, not on prostitutes,” Lindsay told The Stranger via e-mail. “But Holmes has badly executed this strategy, and that's a major reason why human trafficking and sexual exploitation are flourishing in Seattle.”
In response, Holmes wrote The Stranger, "By supporting 'non-arrest strategies' against sex buyers, Scott wants to ignore the demand side and return to failed old ways of addressing sex crimes—a strategy that is a proven legal and moral failure."King County Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell will hear arguments on Wednesday over whether to review the challenge from the City Attorney’s office.
Stranger intern Chetanya Robinson contributed research to this story.
This story has been corrected to reflect that deferred sentences are permanent convictions under immigration law and that deportation can be triggered by just one prostitution conviction, rather than two. It has also been updated to reflect that sexual exploitation is a misdemeanor in Seattle, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.